A tale of two authors from Ukraine and the UK

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The Jan Michalski Foundation in Montricher is like a cathedral of literature in the middle of the countryside

My reading list for the first half of the year was weighted in favour of two authors who came to Switzerland, Jonathan Coe from Britain and Andrey Kurkov from Ukraine. I was invited to moderate a discussion with the visiting authors at the Bibliotopia Festival in Montricher in May. Apart from being talented and prolific writers from newsworthy countries, Coe and Kurkov are kindred spirits.

Born in the same year, 1961, both Coe and Kurkov are keen musicians. They both use humour to lampoon the social and political woes of their respective countries. Their work is a pleasure to read, which is just as well because I had to read their books in bulk in a short space of time – The Rotters’ Club, Number 11 and Middle England by Coe, and Death and the Penguin, Ukraine Diaries and The President’s Last Love by Kurkov. I recommend all of the above and I look forward to reading more from these authors.

Hailed as a post-Soviet Kafka, Kurkov’s work is whimsical on the surface with a dark undercurrent. In Death and the Penguin, the eponymous penguin is called Misha and he lives with a lonely writer called Viktor. Misha exhibits human-like emotions, or at least Viktor interprets his behaviour that way. At one stage, Misha looks at his master and considers him ‘with the heartfelt sincerity of a worldly-wise party functionary’. Hungry for work, Viktor agrees to take on the task of writing advance obituaries of VIPs for a newspaper editor. All seems fine until his first subject meets an untimely end. Before long there is an epidemic of untimely ends in the bulging obituary file, as Viktor finds himself ensnared by powerful forces. Through Viktor’s circumstances, Kurkov is making a commentary on corruption and the cheapness of life in Ukraine.

“All was well, or appeared so. To every time, its own normality. The once terrible was now commonplace, meaning that people accepted it as the norm and went on living, instead of getting needlessly agitated. For them, as for Viktor, the main thing, after all, was still to live, come what may.”

In a similar vein, the satirical gem The President’s Last Love, gives us wickedly funny characters in outlandish situations. Following the life of the fictional serving president of Ukraine, Bunin, from his youth in the 1980s, we witness the combination of cluelessness and opportunism which helps him climb up the greasy pole of politics. Bunin goes from an amoral hand-to-mouth existence to an amoral gilded existence, always entangled in blighted love affairs and sustained by heavy drinking. Ironically, when he has the most power, he has the least freedom. Even the new heart he received in a transplant comes with strings attached. You will learn more about post-Soviet Ukraine in this highly-entertaining book than you would from reading a hundred articles, and the story will make you laugh and cry. I can’t wait to read Kurkov’s latest novel, Grey Bees set in the Donbass grey zone, which is about to be published in English.  

The third book of Kurkov’s I read was his Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev which covers the time of the Maidan protests in 2013/2014. Kurkov lived a short distance away from the square where all the action happened and travelled extensively around the country during those months.

The juxtaposition of everday family life, planting vegetables at the dacha, attending literary events, throwing children’s birthday parties, with the danger, lies and absurdity of the political situation is a great way to capture recent history. It is fascinating to accompany Kurkov, an ethnic Russian, as he experiences the revolution first-hand and observes the crafty machinations of neighbouring Russia.

Incidentally, another speaker at the Bibliotopia festival, the literary activist Mikhail Shishkin, had some alarming things to say about Russia. The Swiss-based author explained that there is a civil war happening in Russia on the internet. “The frontlines are clear and everyone knows what side they are on,” he said. He warned that the war would inevitably go offline into the real world. The problem with Russia has always been the transition of power. “Russia now is pregnant with new states,” he said, predicting that the day Putin is gone, the whole system of Russia will fall apart.

Speaking of formerly powerful empires falling apart, Jonathan Coe does a wonderful job of excavating the cracks running through British society. His twelfth and most recent novel, Middle England, is being referred to as the great Brexit novel. Some of the main characters have appeared in two previous books, The Rotters’ Club and Closed Circle, but Middle England stands alone as a hugely satisfying read. Coe refers to these books as “panoramic serio-comic political novels”.

Middle England gives us the latest portrait of a nation, striking a pleasant harmony between light and dark notes. What shines through is how exceedingly clever and compassionate Coe is, another thing he has in common with Kurkov. Coe gently savages the dull and prosperous areas of “deep England”, graced with enormous garden centres, palaces of time-wasting for those with leisure and money. This is the heartland of Conservative voters who rely on the we-won-two-World-Wars argument no matter what the political question. The absolute rejection of the other side’s point of view, as seen in the divisions between the characters, is not a million miles away from the online civil war in Russia to which Shishkin referred.

Coe takes a broad canvas when he writes about British society, from the London Riots of 2011 to the Brexit campaign to the influence of trans rights activists in academia, all featured in Middle England. With more action and an even broader sweep, Number 11 is a fantastic read. Coe has packed a lot in, very successfully from the uber-rich of London to reality TV to food banks. A series of episodes with interconnected characters, the novel features a mini police drama and a delightful fable about the quest for the security and innocence of lost childhood. It even takes a horror-movie like turn at one point.

The black humour in The Rotters’ Club is even more pronounced. This time we are back in the 1970s, in the youth of Benjamin Trotter. Set in Birmingham where Coe is from, the novel features a big cast of characters. Like Kurkov in The President’s Last Love, this novel is closely aligned with the writer’s generation, time and place. There are stories within stories in The Rotters’ Club and plenty of characters with strongly-held opinions. An interesting way to explore the class system, labour relations, teenage angst and creativity, friendship, sexual discovery, police violence, music and more.  

And all along, there are real events which shape the characters’ lives, none more so than the scene (spoiler alert) where two characters are caught up in one of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. Coe builds up to the horrible climax so masterfully that its impact is devastating. You think you are in a sweet, love scene but you are actually in a vicious death scene. I hardly ever have the experience of being too shocked to continue reading but I had to put the book down for a while to recover after that scene. Not that there is any gore, just an awful realisation. 

I’m going to squeeze in just one more title on the subject of politics. Another writer at the festival (it really was a fantastic line-up) was Philippe Sands, the author of East West Street, published in 2016.

This non-fiction book is partly a memoir and has been hugely popular, even though it is a fairly dense read. The city of Lvov / Lviv / Lemberg is at the heart of the book, along with the Nuremberg trials. Sands traces the stories of three Jewish men and their families from Lviv (now in Ukraine), one of whom is his own grandfather. The other two were legal scholars who ended up connected to the post-war trial through their work on the definition of genocide and crimes against humanity.

East West Street is a powerful and important book. How the author managed to write about those terrible years in such a restrained way is admirable. I loved all the personal details in the background of the three men. Accompanying Sands on his research quest was a great way to tell the interlocking stories. My only complaint is that there was too much repetition of the genocide versus crimes against humanity argument. Sands himself is a human rights lawyer.

So many books, so little time. Thanks to Goodreads, I know that I have read 25 books in the first 25 weeks of this year. When I finish Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered it’ll be a neat one book per week for the first half of the year.

Finally, some snippets of news to do with my work in Switzerland. Back in April, I was invited to take part in the Sunday radio show Les Hautes Parleurs on RTS radio to talk about Brexit. The interview (in French) was filmed and you can view the recording here.

Shortly before that I was the Sonntagsgast (Sunday guest) on the Regionaljournal programme on German-language Swiss public radio, Radio SRF 1. That was a more wide-ranging discussion in German. Meanwhile I am putting the finishing touches to a new writing project, and I will have exciting news about that next month.

That’s all folks. Enjoy your summer reading and do let me know if you take the plunge with Kurkov and Coe!

The Naked Swiss translations are here!

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Today I am celebrating the good news that the French and German translations of The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths are out in the world. My copies arrived this week and I am delighted with the look and feel of the new books.

The publication of the translations coincides with the publication of the second edition of the original version, which has an extra chapter on the Swiss relationship with the European Union. For more about the second edition, check out this interview. The books are available online from the publishers Bergli Books and Helvetiq (German, French), from the usual online booksellers and in all good book shops in Switzerland.

The German title is Die Wahre Schweiz, which means the true or the real Switzerland, and the French is La Suisse mise à nu, which means Switzerland laid bare. The subtitles of both are the same: ‘A people and their 10 myths’. It has been a fascinating process working the with the translators to produce a text that was faithful to the original, as well as being crystal clear to readers from other cultures.

Also today, Swiss author Hans Durrer published a glowing review of The Naked Swiss, in which he praised the book as “highly informative”, “profoundly balanced” and “good storytelling”.

And the final bit of good news is the launch of this book trailer, created by Bergli Books. Enjoy!

Feeling the cold and snow in literature

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The cold and the snow are on everybody’s mind and doorstep this week in Europe. In Switzerland we have had a week of extreme cold. Wednesday was the worst, minus fourteen in the morning. When I walked the dog at the edge of the Gottéron Valley I thought the cold wind racing down from the Alps would crack my cheekbones.

I just finished reading Helen Dunmore’s The Siege, set in Leningrad in the desperate years of 1941/2 where the cold plays a fateful part. My brush with wind chill inspired me to look for some great descriptions of cold and snow in literature, beginning with The Siege. In this scene, the main character is on her way to the bakery to queue for bread. She is suffering from malnutrition because of food shortages.

“It’s cold, so cold. Anna adjusts the scarf she has wound around her face. She’ll rest for a couple of minutes. No longer than that, because in her weakened state the cold could easily finish her off. The scorching frost goes down into her lungs like a knife. She coughs, gasps, shifts her weight from foot to foot, and bats her hands together. Her gloved hands make a muffled, ghostly sound. She thinks of the bulbs under their coverlets of snow, and shivers.”

This is such a beautiful novel, describing searing hardship in a wonderfully sympathetic way with characters who emerge as more important than the crushing heel of history.

The other examples I found happen to come from short stories. I love this scene from George Saunders’ Tenth of December featuring Don Eber, an old man on a suicide bid who has stripped off in a remote area in sub-zero temperature and is talking to himself.

Nausea had not been mentioned in The Humbling Steppe.

A blissful feeling overtook me as I drifted off to sleep at the base of the crevasse. No fear, no discomfort, only a vague sadness at the thought of all that remained undone. This is death? I thought. It is but nothing.

Author, whose name I cannot remember, I would like a word with you.

A-hole.

The shivering was insane. Like a tremor. His head was shaking on his neck. He paused to puke a bit in the snow, white-yellow against the white-blue.

This was scary. This was scary now.

Every step was a victory. He had to remember that. With every step he was fleeing father and father. Farther from father. Stepfarther. What a victory he was wresting. From the jaws of the feet.

He felt a need at the back of his throat to say it right.

From the jaws of defeat. From the jaws of defeat.”

There’s a very chilly and chilling scene in Them Old Cowboy Songs from Annie Proulx’s collection Fine Just the Way It Is. Archie is the unlucky young cowboy who has been sent out to round up stray cows in Wyoming in January.

“Back in the swamp it was just coming light, like grey polish on the cold world, the air so still Archie could see the tiny breath cloud of a finch on a willow twig. Beneath the hardened crust the snow was wallowy. His fresh horse was Poco, who did not know swamps. Poco blundered along, stumbled into an invisible sinkhole and took Archie deep with him. The snow shot down his neck, up his sleeves, into his boots, filled eyes, ears, nose, matted his hair. Poco, in getting up, rammed his hat deep into the bog. The snow in contact with his body heat melted, and as he climbed back into the saddle the wind that accompanied the pale sunlight froze his clothes. Somehow he managed to push eight Wing-Cross strays out of the swamp and back toward the high ground, but his matches would not light and while he struggled to make a fire the cows scattered. He could barely move and when he got back to the bunkhouse he was frozen into the saddle and had to be pried off the horse by two men. He heard cloth rip.”

And finally, the most well-known and the most exquisite, the ending of James Joyce’s The Dead, when Gabriel Conroy looks out the window at the snow after his wife has told him about a boy she loved who died many years before.

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Stay warm, folks!

Ps. I’m attending the Geneva Writers Conference this weekend, weather permitting, and really looking forward to immersing myself in writing talk and ideas.

Pps. The photo is a view of Lake Brienz taken from Axalp in the Bernese Oberland.

A Swiss woman of fire and fury

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This time sixty years ago, Iris von Roten was putting the finishing touches to her life’s work, a 600-page cri de coeur on the woeful position of women in Swiss society. A journalist and lawyer, von Roten put years of research into her book, Frauen im Laufgitter: Offene Worte zur Stellung der Frau (Women in the Playpen: Plain Words About the Situation of Women). In ruthless and unsentimental terms, she examined subects like equality in the workplace (or lack thereof), civil rights, domestic drudgery, motherhood and sexuality. This is a work of fire and fury, the product of a free spirit who all around her saw women in chains.

To give you a taste of von Roten’s style and themes, here is a short passage I translated from the opening chapter, “Female professional activity in a man’s world”.

“Every era has its favourite illusions, and one of the most cherished of our century is that of “the modern woman”, the professionally equal, independent and successful woman.

The “woman of today” supposedly has extensive professional fields open to her; in contrast to her grandmother she is active in every job at every level. Even the most prestigious and highly-paid jobs are not out of reach of the capable woman. Where such positions are not yet occupied by women it is only because no woman has yet deigned to clamber up and take the place that the progressive man is hurrying to offer her. Just like a young man, the young woman can attain the job that corresponds to her talents, standing on her own two feet. To wait for a man, to marry so as to be provided for, this is unknown to today’s woman. She marries purely for love, when and whom she wishes, which allows her to complete the work of art – the combination of job, housework and motherhood – running the show and “mastering life with a laugh”. Beside the modern woman stands the progressive man, filled with admiring awe for the proud swan that the ugly duckling has become. He has long ago freed his mind of prejudices and slowly but surely clears the way for the equality of the sexes in the life of the family, the economy and the state.

The reality, however, looks different in some places, and especially in Switzerland.”

You’ve got to love that sarcasm. I would like to see von Roten’s work gain wider recognition in the English-speaking world. Her radical book/manifesto is one of the leading feminist texts of the twentieth century and there is still a lot to learn from it.

For a brief update on the position of women in Switzerland today, check out this article I wrote for the current edition of International School Parent Magazine: Working mothers in Switzerland – something has to give. I’ll start you off here with the opening two paragraphs.

“Switzerland manages to successfully project two flattering but contradictory images side-by-side. On the one hand, it is a rural mountain idyll populated by wholesome country folk, and dotted with chalets, ski resorts and pretty medieval towns. On the other hand, it is a sophisticated economic hub powered by a productive and innovative workforce.

It is nice balance if you can spend your working hours in business Switzerland and your free time in bucolic Switzerland. But for women, it is certainly not easy if you are expected to raise a family in the traditional model while facing all the challenges of the modern workplace. Something has to give.” (Read more)

Carnival season is kicking off in Switzerland. It’s hugely popular but I’ve never really enjoyed carnival much, if I may admit that. I like the effigy (Rababou) burning in Fribourg because, after the long speech, it’s the only part where I don’t feel bored and cold!

Von Roten’s book came out in the autumn of 1958, a few months before Swiss men voted by a two-thirds majority to deny women the right to vote. She had hoped that her carefully constructed arguments would win hearts and minds. But instead of seeing her ideas analysed and debated, von Roten was personally attacked and villified in the media. Some even blamed her for the negative outcome of the vote. Most painfully, she was ridiculed at the Basel carnival, her fellow townsfolk having spent the winter preparing elaborate costumes and floats on the theme of her book.

But don’t let me ruin carnival for anyone. Depending on where you go, it can be spectacular and wild. If you have any good carnival tips or experiences to share, let me know in the comments. I’d also be really interested to hear your thoughts on Iris von Roten’s work.

How does author platform work?

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How much do you know about your favourite authors? Do you know what they are currently working on, their likes and dislikes, how they spend their free time? If I think of my favourite living writers, I have only the vaguest idea of biographical details or personality. When did we stop thinking this was normal?

The current wisdom on author platform suggests that the author inspires people to buy the book. What this means is that authors are under pressure to hook readers using their online presence. This is supposed to be a liberating development but the danger is it can enslave authors to the idea that they should Always Be Closing.

I once heard indie publishing guru Jane Friedman give a talk about platform where she said that people need to hear about a book an estimated eight times before they buy it. Does this mean authors have to make a lot of noise for their books to get noticed? It seems the lower down you are on the success chain, the less likely it is anyone else will make the noise for you, so yes.

As a reader, I don’t feel much curiosity about the person behind the book. I don’t feel the need to get to know them. If they are good I just want to keep reading their work. But most of my favourite authors have a high profile. Would I forget about them if their names didn’t keep popping up in the media?

In fact, I do forget about them for long stretches of time until I hear a radio interview, or see a festival programme, a tweet, a review. So these reminders are important, even for established writers. The author website is important too. We need to make it easy for our work to be discovered. After that it’s a question of narrowing down the best tools from a host of possibilities, including Facebook, Twitter, blogging, interviews, Goodreads, blog tours, giveaways, Youtube videos, podcasts, not to mention giving talks in person. But it’s impossible to do everything. It’s better to focus on the activities you are most comfortable with.

To approach the idea of platform from the other direction, a few days ago, I was asked for some book recommendations by a friend who has moved to a remote location. Two of the three books I recommended – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and The Return by Hisham Matar were written by authors I had met at Le Livre sur les Quais festival at Morges last month. A literary festival or is a great source of inspiration but they don’t come along that often.

The other place I get ideas from is bookshops, and I am always glad to see my own book so well displayed in Swiss book shops. The other day I bought the new John le Carré at Dublin airport, which would not be a typical choice for me. And I’m enjoying it so far. Another book I’d like to recommend is Petina Gappah’s collection of short stories set in Zimbabwe, An Elegy for Easterly.

Book blogs, like A Life in Books , are also a great source of reviews and ideas. Friends also recommend books and I receive books as presents, most recently Roddy Doyle’s new novel Smile. Apart from that, media coverage plays a big role in the search for new titles, but that’s usually when it’s an author whose work I already know and like. Because I have no access to newspapers in English, the main places I come across reviews or book talk are Facebook and Twitter, so that kind of link sharing also comes into play.

It’s been one year since my book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, was published, I haven’t figured out all the mysteries of the author platform yet. But thinking about it certainly helps.  What do you, as a reader or an author, find most useful or appealing in authors’ online activity? Do you have any dos and don’ts to share?

Beer and the great outdoors

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Switzerland has such an abundance of hiking trails that searching for a new route can send you down a rabbit hole of maps and websites. To make things easier, and more refreshing, hiking guide Monika Saxer has compiled a list of 59 hikes, each of which ends at a brewery or bar where you can quench your thirst with a local craft beer.

Beer Hiking Switzerland is published in English, German and French by Helvetiq, the same publisher that will publish the translations of The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths in the new year. As I am partial to hiking and beer, I didn’t need any persuading to try out one of Saxer’s trails. I once went too far for my own good when I walked my old work commute from Fribourg to Bern (an adventure you can read about here), therefore expert advice is gratefully received.

For this hike, I press-ganged my family to join in and we chose the 11-kilometre Gottéron route on page 94. It starts in the German-speaking village of St Antoni in canton Fribourg, passes by the edge of Tafers and ends up following the wooded Gottéron valley all the way to the Old Town of Fribourg.

I already knew the Gottéron part of the walk well, a narrow other-worldly trail that winds along by the Gottéron river through steep sandstone gorges and dense forest. As with any walk on Swiss hiking trails, there are places set up for grilling and picnicking, as well as signposts to reassure you that you’re on the right track.

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From St Antoni, after a dip and a short climb, most of the route was gradually descending which is the kind of hike I like best. I also like quiet walks. We did not meet any other walkers on the St Antoni to Tafers part, although it was a Saturday afternoon. But we did spot some ostriches, llama and these unusual highland-type cattle.

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The arrival into Fribourg is one of the most romantic approaches to the town, across the Pont de Berne and into Place Petit Saint Jean. Confession alert: we did the walk in two parts over two weekends. As recommended, we made our way to l’Auberge du Soleil Blanc to order a Fri-mousse beer which is brewed a few doors up on the rue de la Samaritaine. The perfect way to enjoy one of these Indian summer days.

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I’m always interested to see what other ideas people come up with to write about Switzerland. The sky’s the limit. The important thing is to write about something you are passionate about. Monika explains in her book that this book grew from her interest in microbreweries. She starting selecting hikes that ended near breweries, and writing up those routes on the website of the Women’s Alpine Club of Zurich, now called CAS Section Baldern. After she was featured in a Migros Magazine article about women and beer, Monika was approached by Helvetiq to write this book.

If you were to write a book about the country you live in, what approach would you take? I’d love to hear (but not steal) your ideas.

The cheapest way to travel

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Reading is by far the cheapest way to travel. And it often beats the real thing. This summer I spent a lot of time in the United States, including an action-packed week in New York and pleasant stays in Southern California, Connecticut and Virginia. I enjoyed several days in a nineteenth century resort on the North Sea, and also travelled to a made-up Portuguese province called Barba.

I read two tragic memoirs, abandoned one novel in exasperation and finished two that I really didn’t enjoy. But overall, it’s been a happy journey with most books ending up on the ‘liked’ and ‘loved’ shelves. Maybe you’ll find something here for your autumn reading list.

Starting with the best: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is a phenomenal piece of work. This book was apparently the sensation of 2015. Not sure how I missed that. Two central drivers make the story totally gripping – one is the resolution that the reader craves for the main character, our wish for him to find inner peace; the other is the wait for the full revelation of what terrible thing(s) happened to him to cause so much misery. The latter is dragged out to the nth degree but it didn’t matter because the writing was so good. Besides, I just wanted to stay in that world.

I don’t know how a book about a man in extreme physical pain and emotional torment is so enchanting but, trust me, it is. The novel supposedly follows the friendship between four young men who meet in university and form a bond for life, but there is only one star in this show and that’s the ever-suffering Jude. Many other intellectually and artistically brilliant characters (all of whom adore Jude) allow us to vicariously enjoy all the possible ways one can live life to the full. There is a fair amount of repetition in the book along with lavish descriptions of luxury lifestyles. But it was fine. Even the bottomless goodness of the good characters versus the bottomless evil of the bad characters was acceptable in this operatic book.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett is a good old-fashioned American family drama told over several decades. Two marriages in Southern California break up when the father of one family starts an affair with the mother of the other family at her baby’s christening party. The opening party scene is brilliant. We are left to follow the destinies of the six children of these two couples who become step siblings. The children’s anger and confusion fuels anarchic behaviour which ultimately leads to them being bound together for life by tragedy.

In I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice, the writer charts her family’s struggle since her husband was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease. A free-spirited Irish couple with young children, they were living a charmed life before the disease knocked everything down. Not quite everything. The pair went on to have twins, choosing to fight death with life. Simon Fitzmaurice wrote and directed a film relying on eye gaze technology to communicate. And Ruth has produced this brave book. There is so much to take from her in extremis perspectives on friendship, motherhood, love and marriage, pain and loss, and of course illness.

Fitzmaurice writes with eloquence and rage. The realities of caring for a loved one with a paralysing illness are familiar to me which made the memoir resonate all the more. I will remember this book for a long time. Ruth Fitzmaurice talks a lot of the joys of swimming in the cold Irish Sea, something I was happy to have the chance to do again this summer (in real life), hence the photo above.

In an effort to broaden my German literature horizons, and inspired by a chapter in Padraig Rooney’s The Gilded Chalet, I decided to take on the challenge of reading the classic doorstopper Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann.

It tells the story of four generations of the wealthy Buddenbrook family. I plodded through the 850 pages (in English, don’t worry) in increasing admiration, especially as the author was so young when he wrote it. A brilliant depiction of a family, a class and a town, written with an enjoyable helping of satire but also compassion.

Mann recreates a century in the life of a community. At times we view group scenes from a distance as a set piece, while at other times the action is painfully intimate. I’m amazed at how many moments rang true for me as a modern reader. What he does with the internal life of the main characters is astounding. Maybe unsurprisingly, the men are the more complex and interesting characters, with the women presented more as simple or enigmatic creatures. But that fits the era, sadly. How Mann so perfectly understood and was able to capture the ennui and awful weight of respectability of generations of the Buddenbrooks is simply amazing.

From 1890s Germany to 1980s Britain, and the debut novel by Kit de Waal, My Name is Leon. A lovely story about a lonely foster child, beautifully and convincingly told. De Waal knows the care system inside out and it shows. But she is also a wonderful writer who has created a sweet and true character in Leon. The sympathetic adult characters are really well observed, the women in particular. Maybe we spend a little too much time at the allotments but that’s OK. I’ll be saving this one for my children’s must-read shelf when they are a little older (thirteen plus would be fine). I’m really looking forward to seeing de Waal at Le Livre Sur Les Quais literary festival next weekend in Morges.

The Children by Ann Leary was a quick, satisfying read, recommended by one of my favourite book blogs, A Life in Books. It provided entertaining family dynamics with a little mystery and menace thrown in. Despite some of the heavy themes, the book manages to remain light and pacy. I would definitely like to read more of Ann Leary.

The other memoir I read was When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, in which the author describes his career as a surgeon, up to and including his terminal cancer diagnosis. An extremely interesting examination of medical matters and ethics, Kalanithi held back so much emotionally that I almost forgot to be moved. The chapter written by his widow at the end made up for that.

If you’re curious, the book I gave up on was The New Republic by Lionel Shriver, the one partly set in a fictional province. I enjoyed the opening in New York but the plot became increasing silly and the writing too forced when we landed in Barba. The satire on terrorism with lots of echoes of the IRA was too clever for its own good. As a die-hard Shriver fan, I was quite taken aback.

Finally, a reminder that I will be appearing at Le Livre Sur Les Quais literary festival in Morges (near Lausanne) on Sunday September 3rd at 4.30 pm. I will be participating in a panel discussion with fellow Swiss-based authors Diccon Bewes and Padraig Rooney on the subject of Switzerland, Brexit and the new European reality. For some of the weekend I’ll be sitting at my table in the writers’ tent signing books and meeting people. The festival runs from Friday to Sunday and features Ireland as guest country of honour this year. There are many fantastic talks, readings and workshops for fans of Irish literature plus a hugely impressive roll call of Irish and international writers to meet (full programme). Hope to see you there!

Writing news and summer days

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Quite a lot has happened over the past few months so I thought I’d share some of my writing news before I lose track. I’m borrowing the Irish calendar summer here, which is May, June and July. In Switzerland, summer officially starts on midsummer’s day, June 21st. This way I get the best of both worlds.

May was the month of reviews. An Irish academic in Germany, Fergal Lenehan, wrote a long, thoughtful essay about The Naked Swiss for the Dublin Review of Books. It is the best, most comprehensive analysis of the book so far. A great reward in itself. Lenehan is the author of a book about German images of Ireland which is based on a study of news coverage of Ireland in two German weekly publications, Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, over a 60-year period. On average, the two outlets together ran one article about Ireland per month from 1946 to 2010, indicating a surprising level of interest.

At the end of the month, I got an unexpected message from the Swiss correspondent of the Financial Times, Ralph Atkins, to let me know that his review of The Naked Swiss was online. Needless to say, I was delighted, but also taken aback by the tone of the debate in the comments at the end of the article. Who would have thought FT readers were so emotional?

In June, I got the good news that a short story of mine had been placed second in the fiction category of the Geneva Literary Prize. The story hasn’t been published yet but I will let you know as soon as it’s available to read. A member of my tiny writers’ group, Tara McLoughlin Giroud, won the non-fiction prize so it was a double celebration.

Then came the most exciting news of the summer. I received an invitation to take part in Le Livre sur les Quais literary festival in Morges, an event I referred to last year in a blog post as ‘book heaven’ on Lake Geneva. Here’s a photo from the 2016 festival.

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The festival takes place from September 1 to 3, and what makes it really special is that the guest country of honour this year is Ireland. To be appearing under the same roof as some of the most respected names in contemporary Irish literature is almost too good to be true. My panel event is scheduled for Sunday afternoon but the rest of the time I will be hopping from one talk to the next, soaking up the literary atmosphere. As soon as the English programme is published, I’ll share it here. The Irish and international authors on the bill include John Boyne, Kevin Barry, Sara Baume, Paul McVeigh, Donal Ryan, Kit de Waal and Douglas Kennedy.

I’ll leave you with some images of these summer days in Switzerland. The photo at the top is of Limmatquai in Zurich. Highlights so far: Swims in the Aare river (Bern) and the Limmat. A hike along Lake Brienz. A night spent “sleeping on the straw”. Meeting scary cows on an alp. Crossing Lake Geneva at dawn. Sunset at Muntelier.

Wishing you all lots of freedom and fun this summer.

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Axalp in the Bernese Oberland
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Morning in Lausanne

 

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Charmey, Fribourg

 

Swiss-based authors: Alison Anderson

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My interview with American author Alison Anderson is the fourth and final author profile in the swissinfo.ch series on English-language writers living in Switzerland. Of all the authors I interviewed, Alison is the one with the closest ties to Switzerland, having first come to the country as an eight-year-old to attend her sister’s wedding.

She came back to complete her schooling in Switzerland, studied at Lausanne University, and finally settled in the Lake Geneva area in 2008 after a long stay in California, including five years living on a wooden sailboat in San Francisco bay.

Alison’s new novel, The Summer Guest, is a delightful read that dips in and out of 1880s Ukraine and two present day settings the French-Swiss border and London before reintroducing us to present-day Ukraine. Although the storylines are all linked to Chekhov, the three female narrators are in the foreground.

It was a pleasure to share a pot of Irish tea with Alison and find out more about her life and work. Alison is also a leading translator of French literature. Her many translations include Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Ingrid Betancourt’s memoir, and the work of Nobel laureate JMG De Clézio.

Have a look back at the other Swiss-based novelists featured in this series: Jason Donald, author of Dalila, Anne Korkeakivi, author of Shining Sea, and Susan Jane Gilman, author of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street and three nonfiction titles.

After the summer, swissinfo.ch will publish a literary podcast featuring audio material from these four interviews. With such different styles and publishing journeys represented, it promises to be very interesting!

In case you missed the link, the full interview with Alison Anderson is here.

Swiss-based authors: Anne Korkeakivi

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I took a walk on the wild side of Geneva with American author Anne Korkeakivi, the third subject to feature in this swissinfo.ch series of English-language writers based in Switzerland. The author of two novels, Shining Sea and An Unexpected Guest (both published by Little Brown), Anne’s work has been described as “eloquent” and “captivating”.

The New Yorker had a successful career as a journalist before she decided to try out her fiction wings. She stopped producing nonfiction work, taking a job as an editor for a French publishing house, and gave herself twelve months to make a go of fiction. She sold her first story in the eleventh month.

That was the encouragement Anne needed to devote herself to fiction. I spent a morning with Anne, walking through the woods and backroads of Geneva. Having lived abroad for most of her adult life, she is content to live in such an international city. This global spirit is evident in the many different locations Anne features in her work – from Paris to the Philippines to the Hebrides.

Anne’s two novels are very different in scope and tone. The action in the first, An Unexpected Guest, takes place over one day in Paris, as a woman married to a diplomat realises what shaky foundations her well-ordered life is built upon. Shining Sea has a panoramic sweep, following the lives of the large Gannon family over several decades and continents. You’ll find more information about Anne and her work on her website.

Also featured in this series is Susan Jane Gilman, author of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street and three nonfiction books, as well as Jason Donald, author of Dalila and Choke Chain. There is one more author to come next week to complete the talented quartet.